blade runner with bicycle rickshaws (part 2)

I didn’t like Shenzhen at all.

It’s the success story of the New China – built with foreign and local investment; big, flashy, new. People come from all over China to make their fortune, and so even though Shenzhen is in a Cantonese-speaking region, Mandarin* is the lingua franca here.

At first glance, it’s an impressive, cosmopolitan city, full of skyscrapers and nightclubs and modern concrete flyovers. But if you look a bit closer, the glamour disappears. After a while, the skyscrapers all look the same: mirrorglass facing, a lobby with potted plants, and the logo of Japanese technology company at the top. The nightclubs are overpriced, depressing, and full of people asking you if you’d like them to introduce a few nice girls. And the concrete flyovers, new just a few years ago, are already cracked and crumbling.

“Hello? DVD?”
“No thanks,” I reply in Chinese, “but if you can tell me where I can find a payphone, I’d be much-obliged.”

I’d just bought a ticket back to Beijing for a train leaving the next day. This was a change from my original plan, which had been to go to Chengdu and Chongqing, and then continue to Shanghai and Nanjing, but in Shenzhen I decided that (a) the South is too hot, (b) travelling around on your own is less fun than travelling with others, and (c) it would be nice to be able to use my fucking ATM card.
My train left the next day, so I was stuck finding a hotel. I’d stayed at a hostel the night before — it was cheap and fairly comfortable, but also out in the sticks, where cab fare to and from the train station brought the price of a night up to about what I’d have paid for a more central hotel.

Mr. Hello-DVD led me out of the mall we were in (I’d just gone there to get out of the rain) and across the footbridge, back towards the train station, and down some steps to a bank of payphones, where I called my mother, assured her that I was more-or-less probably doing OK, kind of, and told her of my change in plans.
Then I agreed to go with Mr. DVD and buy a few movies; he’d been helpful and nice, and hey, I can always use more movies.

I ended up sitting in a fabric shop on the mall’s fifth floor, chatting with him and his bosses and flipping through shoeboxes full of software and DVDs. They complimented me more or less constantly on my Chinese, which made them cool in my book, and we talked for about an hour and a half. Finally, I mention that I’m in Shanzhen for another night, and ask if they know of any cheap hotels.
“Sure – I’ll take you around and we’ll find one,” said DVD Man, and so we left, talking away in Chinese and drawing surprised stares from people in the elevator on the way out.

We went around from hotel to hotel, but they were neither fantastically cheap* or all that clean. After we’d gone to a few hotels near the station, he turned to me and said: “Tell you what – you can stay at my place. It’s not far, and I won’t charge you anything. How’s that sound?”

I said that it sounded great, and we headed off for his place. We finally introduced ourselves in the taxi, me as Ou Bo’en* and he as Liu Shiyong*, 27 years old, from Jiangsu Province.
We got out of the cab about a block down Renmin Street from the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, walked down a side street, then turned down another side street lined with barbershops, slipped into a narrow alley next to a Hui* restaurant, walked for about 100 metres, then turned again, and again, and again, until finally we were in front of a three-story concrete building.
“In here,” Shiyong said, and then led me through the “family room” – also concrete, and bare except for a TV and a few kids watching same – and into his room.

The word “room” might not be entirely accurate. The first floor was divided into two halves – the bathroom/living room half, and the other half, partitioned by thin sheets of plywood with newspapers glued to them. Shiyong’s partition was smaller than my closet-sized dorm room last year; his floor was bare concrete; his bed was a plank with a thin bamboo mat over it; his electrical outlet was a cord run in from the street through a window.
“I’m embarassed to bring you here,” he said. “This alley is the crappiest place in Shenzhen.”
I assured him that it was perfectly fine, that in fact it actually reminded me of home.
“You must be tired from carrying your backpack – take a nap for a while, and then I’ll show you around.”

So we went out, Shiyong and I. We stopped at the Hui restaurant we’d passed earlier and got lunch there. The owner was impressed and delighted by my ability to eat the spicy meat cakes they made; he yelled at the cook to go easy on the hot peppers when I ordered, and when I replied that hot food was no problem, he smiled and nodded, then continued telling the cook not to put in too many lajiao.
Afterwards, we walked around Renmin Street for an hour or so, then caught a bus down to the Plum Sands Beach and watched people swimming until the sun set and it started pouring rain. Then we grabbed another bus back into town. It was about 9:30, and I asked Shiyong which places were fun at this time of night. He replied that there were a few nightclubs near the train station, and so we set out looking for one of those after we arrived in the centre of town.

Shiyong was wearing a grubby work shirt, worn slacks, and flip-flops. The nightclub hostesses looked at him with palpable disdain as we walked in, but he was with a foreigner – a mark of class if ever there was one. He and I started laughing as soon as the hostess seated us and walked off with her nose in the air. We ordered a few beers – my treat, I insisted; give me face – and sat back to watch karaoke and, I shit you not, a floorshow done to a disco remix of ‘The Entertainer.’

We took a bicycle rickshaw back to his place. It was cheaper than a cab, but perhaps not the best idea for someone who, like Shiyong, has a low beer tolerance. The Hui restaurant was still open when we passed by, so we stopped in there and got a few skewers of roasted lamb and meat patties. The owner said that he’d make up a bag of the beef patties for me to take on the train the next day, and gave Shiyong a couple bottles of water, on the house.

The plank was more comfortable than I’d expected it to be.

The next morning, we walked down a different series of twists and turns in the alley complex to a Hakka* restaurant, where we got a breakfast of soup and lamb with rice. Again, we chatted with the owner and his wife; they were just opening up as we arrived, and the owner’s wife had to keep running over to the skillet to get the fire started again. In the stretch of alley next to the restaurant, some kids were playing at an apparently-communal pool table, arguing loudly over who had or hadn’t potted the cue ball. When we left, the owner’s wife made up a little baggie of chicken feet for me to eat on the train.

The owner of the Hui restaurant gave me 6 beef patties — on the house, despite my pleas.
Shiyong and I ran to the train station, arriving with just enough time to say goodbye before I scrambled on board.
“Maybe I’ll come visit you in Harbin,” he said. “Or maybe we’ll meet up again in Shenzhen. Look for me if you ever get a chance to come back. I’ll still be at the mall.”
“And look me up if you get a chance to come to Harbin. I’ll be around, and you have my number. Take care, man.”
“Take care. Have a good trip.”

And then I was off on a 25-hour ride to Beijing.
The beef patties, I found, were every bit as good cold as they were warm.

Comments (15)

  1. Derek wrote::

    Perfect. Just perfect.

    Friday, September 6, 2002 at 2:26 am #
  2. Bridget wrote::

    You know, I don’t usually go off about “male privledge”–I tend to think that in large American cities in 2002 it’s mainly bullshit: I don’t feel oppressed or lacking due to my gender, and never have–but there are times that there is a decided advantage to being male as opposed to female. Not that most male Americans would spend the night at an unknown individual’s house either, but that is an experience that a women would never have. No woman would ever do something like that, not even (likely) if another woman offered–not that another woman would offer… which is sad, because it seems like an amazing experience.

    Now I’m sure that this post will be followed by a great outcry accusing me of being ridiculous and paranoid and saying that other people would accept the invitation to stay at a stranger’s house… but I disagree. No female in her right mind would accept that kind of invitation, no matter how well-wishing the individual seemed.

    Friday, September 6, 2002 at 3:05 am #
  3. Choire wrote::

    But, did you eat the chicken feet?

    Bridget, you’re probably pretty spot on, actually. Although my friend Anna-Sophie stayed at stranger’s houses in and around Bejing while she travelled. But she’s a tough tough cookie, and not a little crazy.

    Men travelling alone are actually a target of violence in a different (and less frequent) way, it should be noted too. Men are expected to be ready to fight — women are expected to be ready to be victims.

    Saturday, September 7, 2002 at 2:38 am #
  4. Bridget wrote::

    Well, anyone travelling alone is a prospective target, particularly “rich Americans” with real American dollars / passports.

    Actually, anyone obviously a traveller is a bit of a target. It’s just a matter of what’s rather daring and what’s ridiculously insane.

    Saturday, September 7, 2002 at 5:10 am #
  5. Brendan wrote::

    I did not eat the chicken feet, no.

    I have, however eaten chicken feet, which are pretty tasty once you manage to stop thinking ‘Wow, I’ve got a fucking chicken foot in my mouth.’ These particular chicken feet, however, I donated to a beggar kid. thus possibly getting me out of a few seconds’ worth of purgatory.

    I generally agree with Bridget, but in fact, violent crime against foreigners, male or female, is pretty rare here. It’s not at all the same as the US; here you can (usually) stay at someone’s house without having to worry about being robbed or raped or ravaged or any other r-word. It’s more or less safe here – as a guy, mind you. (Although I have stories about Beijing…but those are for another day.) As a girl, well…it’s less safe, yes, but it’s still safer by far than staying with a random stranger in the States.

    Anyway – although I said at the beginning of the post that I didn’t like Shenzhen at all, that’s not entirely accurate. It was fantastic in retrospect, because of this particular experience. But I can’t say that I recommend the city.

    Bridget: (re your later post) – while this is true – another story will come later – the fact is that the amount of shit that a Chinese person could get in for bothering a Foreign Friend in any way really does serve to decrease the rate of bothering.

    Saturday, September 7, 2002 at 5:33 am #
  6. nic wrote::

    it never ceases to amaze me what difference it makes when language is not that big a barrier. the thing that’s always frustrated me when travelling (or even at home in hk) is meeting people who sound really interesting, if only i could understand half of what they were saying.

    been to shenzhen countless times, but i think i’ve been in hk too long. i only go to buy dvds, which is quite sad.

    i’m not surprised with brendan’s thoughts on the city. i think it’s one of the ugliest cities i’ve been in, and that’s from somebody who came from manila. the people though, are a different story.

    ps: chicken feet can be good, once you get over it. it’s nothing compared to the other things they eat.

    Saturday, September 7, 2002 at 11:26 am #
  7. Katie wrote::

    I’m slow on the boat on this one, but I could so see myself at some random persons house in China. When you wrote that, it didn’t even *occur* to me that would be a bad idea, until I read someone elses comment about it. There would be no way in hell I would do that here in the States. Plus, like you said, a Chinese person would get hella messed up for fucking with a Foreign Friend.

    Also, reading about Liu Shiyong’s place reminds me of Kiki’s (KIKI!!!) place in Hangzhou. When I stayed with her, my bed (and hers) was a wooden plank, with some blankets and a pillow. It was somehow…comfortable. I was suprised.

    I’m really glad you had an awesome time travelling, makes me all full of regrets and whatnot. Oh, well, there’s always the future to go travelling by train, but, damn I can’t imagine a train being comfortable…

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 2:11 am #
  8. Stewart wrote::

    Dude, China or no China, you will not catch me sleeping in a total stranger’s house. You could wake up the next morning in some back-alley brothel or on some slave ship.

    Hehe kinda reminds me of that time in Shanghai (it was Shanghai right?) when you went to buy DVDs from that shady guy on the bike…that just reeks of “tourist attack.”

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 2:49 am #
  9. Bonnie wrote::

    As safe as it probably is here, even for a girl, I still get weird in a locked soft sleeper cabin with a random nasty Chinese man buying 2 beers to drink by himself on the train(and try to force on me) at 11 PM and asking me if I have free time as soon as I get back to Tonghua.

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 8:07 am #
  10. Anonymous wrote::

    Oh! But I already told you all that in person. Hey! I believe that’s ten comments! Or did I cheat?

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 8:08 am #
  11. Cokane wrote::

    Yeah, you cheated.

    Yo, Brendan, send me a beef patty and I’ll send you a tripe taco from Washington Ave.

    What movies did you get?

    Cool post

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 10:07 am #
  12. Stewart wrote::

    Update your link to my site, bitch!

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 11:41 am #
  13. Bridget wrote::

    1. Ben: Your e-mail address is “” In order to have a Wharton address, does one not have to be enrolled in Wharton? If you are a Wharton student, meaning that you have sold whatever principles you may at one time have had to spend a lifetime in pursuit of that great idol Mammon, then I really don’t think that I speak with you any longer.

    No, I’m being too harsh. I don’t really hate you if you’re a Wharton student.

    No, no, on second thought–I take that back. I think I do.

    2. Not that anyone cares, but I’ve decided to face that, barring the Second Coming of Christ (in the event of which I’ll be concerned with a few more things than studying abroad), Notre Dame will not be reopening its Jerusalem campus. I’m considering going to Athens. There are positives associated with this as well as negatives. Anyone intensely interested with my life should feel free to inquire further, whereupon I will provide exhaustive lists of both groupings and demand your opinion.

    No, I didn’t think you’d be interested.

    That is all.

    Wednesday, September 11, 2002 at 3:10 am #
  14. Bension wrote::

    Hey –

    Looks like your having an interesting adventure. Most Americans don’t really get a opportunity to experience a foreign culture like that. Your posts are really interested.

    Anyway, whats your email address again?


    Wednesday, September 11, 2002 at 7:57 am #
  15. Ben wrote::

    Hehe…I figured someone would notice. (I guess that was the point) .

    No, I’m not in wharton, just taking some wharton classes for which I need a wharton email account. But I thought having a wharton email would be really cool. I”m still in the engineering school – I’m a comp sci major. But being in wharton wouldn’t be so bad anyway…I know a lot of cool people there.


    Thursday, September 12, 2002 at 9:50 am #